Monkey Forest Tales: Some stories from visitors: Exploring the human-wildlife frontier in the Colombian Llanos – Part 3

Day 3                     

With Sonia gingerly favoring her twisted ankle, the three of us headed north in the direction from which we had heard the howlers the day before. Xyomara’s instincts were again spot on: this time we had an unforgettable encounter with three species of monkey sharing the same forest patch: squirrels, red howlers and dusky titis (we had glimpsed a pair of the latter on the first day as well).

The red howlers were not howling this time but contented themselves with languidly observing us from just a few meters up in the trees. Like other members of the family Atelidae, their long prehensile tails truly function as a fifth hand. They even have fingerprint-like ridges on the naked undersides. While the three owners of these expressive organs observed us with somewhat nonplussed expressions, the tails would slither along a branch and then loop themselves over their shoulders or beneath their chins, as if their owners were lost in thought, or they would coil around a branch like an octopus tentacle. Prehensile tails are found only in a few genera of South American primates. It is a mystery to me why they would not exist in their Old World cousins; they seem to be so ‘handy’!

The dusky titi monkeys (Plecturocebus ornatus) showed no such serenity and instead expressed annoyance that we had intruded into their small mutually-defended domain. Although they began their energetic displays separately, soon male and female were in the same tree embracing one another and periodically emitting booming alarm hoots. Their glowering faces were framed by a prominent white band above the eyes, but it was the crimson tinge to the sideburns that most attracted my attention. I was surprised by the titis’ high-energy behavior. Although enchanted by descriptions of their charming habit of entwining tails like teenage lovebirds, I had held a stereotypical image of these monkeys as rather dull, inactive creatures. Today, though, I was impressed by the coordination that was evident in their mutual display, as if to say: ‘you and me against the world, baby!’

Day 4

We stood beneath another chittering group of squirrel monkeys, absorbing their jittery, expressive energy as they hunted beneath leaves for insects and occasional fruits. Perched in a nearby tree, a raptor (Harpagus bidentatus) gazed serenely upon us and our smaller primate cousins. Suddenly, at ground level, a shaggy, slightly disheveled oso hormiguero burst from the foliage to enter the scene. This was a male giant anteater that Xyomara had already captured on her camera traps. A female also inhabits the area, recognizable in the video clips by the adorable baby clinging primate-like to her back.

We felt we were dreaming as this charmingly unlikely-looking creature lumbered through the vegetation in front of us, strode rapidly in our direction, focused its small short-sighted eyes on us, thought better of the whole thing, and lumbered right back into the forest from which it had emerged.

It had been my fervent wish for months to sketch one of these beings. My hands moved rapidly across the paper of my art book without my eyes once leaving the apparition in front of me, capturing the bushy tail and the black stripe crisscrossing the shoulder like a jaunty bandolier. I had never drawn an animal so quickly!

Before our return to camp and a bit further down the trail, we were enchanted by the exhuberant displays of lekking males of white-bearder manakin. According to Xyomara they gather regularly at this one spot in the forest to ‘lek’ for choosy females. For a while we watched them flit around the clearing in their black-and-white glory, creating loud popping sound with their wings that sounded like fireworks, all within a few meters of the barbed wire fence demarcating the pasture. Then it was time to trek back to the farm. 

SONIA: In addition to the respect that the family showed to the wildlife, it was also clear that the domesticated animals in their charge were part of the family, cared for, and able to live relatively natural lives. The chickens and turkeys foraged freely in the yard, the dogs spent the day running alongside horses and grappling with their packmates, and a newborn calf that fell ill was treated tenderly. Each animal played their role in the family; for instance, the cats eat mice, the dogs guard the house, the chicken provide eggs, and the horses provide transportation.

It was clear that these folks cared about wildlife as well. We participated in the rehabilitation of three flycatcher chicks who had lost their parents, ending with these baby birds adopted into a flock of their wild cousins. Another bird who had been rescued by the family continued to hang around at the farm despite being free to go where it wanted.   

Particularly fun for me was when the teenage daughter and young boy accompanied us on some of our forest walks. They knew to be quiet and respectful when we spotted monkeys, and the kid even helped me walk through the forest by holding branches aside for me. To see young Colombians take such an interest in their nonhuman neighbors and to treat them with such respect was an inspiration!

Day 5

Our trip was nearing its end. We had seen all but one of the five resident monkey species: despite two night walks, we had failed to locate Aotus brumnbacki, the night monkey with its big goggly eyes. No matter … 

For our last day, Xyomara had saved the most spectacular encounter for the last. She led Sonia, the two children of the farmhands and me across a wide stretch of pastureland towards a swamp sheltered beneath a cluster of native Moriche  palms. As we picked our way between the cow patties, Sonia pointed down into a deep puddle. ‘Que es esto?’ she asked. I saw only a muddy glob, but Sonia insisted and, looking closer, we could make out the lurking form of a babilla (Caiman cocodrilus), a small crocodilian, which had apparently become stranded in this puddle following heavy rains. Here, native fauna thrived not just in the forest but even in the pasture.

As the gorgeous Antioquian sunset filled the sky, we arrived at the palm cluster. Cows came again rushing to greet us in a massive herd. Xyomara greeted them as old friends and assured us they meant no harm. They peered at us with their liquid brown eyes, hoping for a salty treat. Eventually they grew bored with us and flowed off together in a synchronized swell across the landscape. As the sun began to sink, we settled down to watch the white cattle egrets roosting by the dozens in a tree in the middle of the swamp. We were startled out of our calm by a dizzying and unexpected explosion, a huge swell of flapping rosy color rising up against the dark fringe of forest lining the horizon. Flamingos! Not at all, this was Xyomara’s surprise for us, a flock of scarlet ibises (Eudocimus ruber), gorgeously flaming in V formation across the sky. We were stunned at the sheer exhuberance of color displayed by these most elegant of birds. In the midst of one swirling flock we spotted two errant white herons flying together with their brilliantly-colored cousins. Several more flocks swirled by as dusk spead against the sky. Xyomara clearly relished the effect this had on us; such an unexpected site in the middle of a pasture!

Only one week before, Sonia and I had been exploring the wild Pacific coast of Nuqui. Those dripping ocean-hugging forests presented a diametrical contrast to these hot flat plains, but the biodiversity at both was astounding. The human cultures (Afrocarribean and indigenous Emberra at Nuqui vs cowboys in the llanos) were spectacularly diverse as well. Colombia is a vast and beautiful country full of breathtaking natural beauty. Muchas gracias to Xyomara and the owners of the ranch for letting us peek, so briefly, into one of those rich corners of biodiversity.

SONIA: This was a very special experience, spending time so close to the monkeys and other species in their native habitat. On our last day, for example, we were serenaded by a group of red howlers as the sun rose over the landscape. Unforgettable! Although we are clearly an invasive species, for one week I experienced a lovely example of people entering into wildlife habitat and treating the animals with respect.

The ranch residents treated us with courtesy and made sure that we felt a part of their community, a community which included not only humans but various forms of domesticated and free-living life. We left Finca Santa Rosa with a feeling of peace. It was a bit of a challenge to then readjust to city life.

© Copyright Disclaimer. Sketches were made by Cleve Hicks, pictures reproduced with his permission.  Pictures in this post by Sonia Uribe. All pictures used on this web page are protected with copyrights to Xyomara Carretero-Pinzón. If you want to use any of these pictures, please leave a message on the website. Thank you.

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